A refugee sits in a room on a secure floor of Melbourne’s Park Hotel, his mind racing. He is not allowed outside. He has not taken one breath of fresh air in three months.
At night, he does not sleep. At 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock, he calls his family in Afghanistan to ask his wife if she and their children are okay. They are still in Kabul, where he said goodbye to them eight years ago. His children, three sons and one daughter, are now teenagers.
Since Australian and allied troops began withdrawing from Afghanistan, his worry for his family has increased significantly. He will not publish his name. Not because of what the Australian government can do to him, he says; they have already taken his freedom and his power. He is fearful of the Taliban: they know he worked for coalition forces in Afghanistan. They have already tried to kill him. They have repeatedly threatened his family. Now, they are encroaching on Kabul.
He is alone. He is anxious. His thoughts are on a loop: “Afghanistan is not safe. I need to move my family … I cannot help my family … I need to move my family. For eight years I cannot help my family … If anyone wants to help me, just move my family to safe country. I don’t need anything … I just want to move my family. My family is not safe. The Taliban know me. The Taliban is very angry at me … They look for me, and look for my family. If I do not move my family from Afghanistan the Taliban is killing my family … I need to move my family.”
He says: “Every day, every hour in Afghanistan is changing, changing, changing.”
Following a two-decades-long war, American and NATO forces began withdrawing from Afghanistan in May. Australia’s own military exit is now complete. There was no official commemoration. The retreat was abrupt, unceremonious.
Since then, violence in Afghanistan has escalated. The Taliban have captured key border crossings and swaths of new territory. Borders are closed. Embassies are closed. The Taliban now controls or contests more of Afghanistan’s territory than at any time since 2001. Afghan army members have fled to neighbouring countries. This week a United Nations report revealed that more women and children have been killed and wounded in Afghanistan in the past six months than in the first half of any year since records began in 2009.
The unnamed refugee tells The Saturday Paper he began working for the Afghanistan government, and for the allies, at the age of 17. He worked in the National Directorate of Security, for which he obtained and still holds a certificate from the United States and Afghan special forces units. His job, he says, was to advise the allies on Afghanistan: the geography and terrain, roads and villages, safe and dangerous parts of the cities.
He worked alongside international forces to capture and jail Taliban fighters. When the jailed militants were eventually moved into the community, they discovered he was working for the coalition. He moved to another village. The Taliban attacked his house with rocket-propelled grenades. They shot at him several times. He left that village and moved to a city, but the threat and danger did not end: he spent one month in hospital with serious injuries. To date, 15 members of his family have been killed, including his brother who, last year, was shot in the head.
The refugee fled Afghanistan in 2013. He believed he was coming to a safe country, from where he would organise passage for his family. After arriving at Christmas Island, he was sent by the Australian government to Papua New Guinea, where he remained for six years. It was unsafe, he says. He became unwell. In 2019, he was moved to Australia’s mainland for medical treatment. He has been very sick in detention, he says: stomach, head, blood pressure, kidneys, teeth.
For a time he was detained in Brisbane, where he was placed on a waitlist to see a dentist. Just before his scheduled appointment, he was moved to Melbourne. He does not know why. He is still waiting for proper dental and medical treatment.
His words come at a rush: “I come from Afghanistan to help my family … I come here to move my family to a safe country. I am not thinking they keep me here for eight years for no reason. If you showed me the reason I say, ‘Okay, I am bad man, okay, I am criminal so you keep me in detention’ … But they not show any reason, just keep me in here…
“If Australia government and Australia people do not want refugee, okay, you send me to another country. Why you keep me in here? The government took my power … for eight years I can’t help my family … If eight years ago I go to Canada or New Zealand or any other country, I would move my family to a safe country. To the minister I want to say: ‘For any reason if you want to keep me in here, just say the reason. For eight years you keep me in here … Okay, keep me in here … Please just move my family from Afghanistan to safe country.’ ”
He continues: “I told to the judge, face-to-face, five months ago, you send me back to Papua New Guinea because I want to help my family … This judge has not give decision for five months. I told him if I am criminal – okay, you put me in jail, you send me to the court, I want an answer in the court. They not show the reason they keep me in detention. For what reason? Because I am refugee. Any time I ask the case manager, they say, ‘I do not know why they keep you in detention.’ Australia government keep me in detention and give the Taliban a chance to kill my family. I want to ask this question about you: If your children are in dangerous country, are you worried or are you happy?”
The Australian government has verified this refugee’s certificate and knows he worked alongside the American and Australian armies in Afghanistan, he says. The government recognises his refugee status under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. Yet because he arrived by boat, he will not be settled in Australia. He is in detention because no third country will take him.
Two weeks ago he met with representatives from Australian Border Force to again explain his family’s situation. He was told there was nothing they could do: the embassy in Afghanistan had closed. Perhaps they could push his case for community detention to the minister?
From his hotel room he continues to email his case manager but receives no response. He believes the Australian government, and Alex Hawke, the minister for Immigration, is preventing him from taking care of his family.
He repeats his pleas: “Any hour I call my children and my wife, and I say, ‘Okay, I help’ … She is going crazy now … She is so worried now … She says, ‘Why you not help me? It is very dangerous now … If you want to help me, come and help me.’
“Every time I talk to my wife, I talk to my children, and I say, ‘Don’t worry, I will help you … Don’t worry I will find a way to move you from Afghanistan.’ I say it like that to my wife and my children … every day. I know I can’t help because I stay in detention, but what can I say? What can I say to my wife? ‘No, I can’t help’? Every day I talk to my wife and she is very worried. She is worried about my children, she is not worried about herself. She say, ‘The Taliban can kill me, no problem, but not the children. Why they keep you in detention? I need help now. The Taliban is too close to Kabul. The Taliban is come to the gate … the Kabul gate.’
“One hour, one day, I don’t know when is the Taliban going inside Kabul. Many time the Taliban ask my children, ‘Where is your father? I want to find your father, if I can’t find your father I want to kill you.’ My wife is never sleeping … It is eight years she is waiting for me … I want to help her, I want to move her to a safe country. I never help my family … The Australian government took my power … I have no power.”
He concludes: “I need from your people: Help, please.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 31, 2021 as "A family living in fear".
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